Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rejection Rejected: Mark 15:1-39 - Sunday of the Passion

Image courtesy of prozac1 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
6-year-old Danielle was in a very bad mood one Sunday afternoon…

The angry frown on her otherwise smiling just wouldn’t go away—so her mother finally asked, “Is something bothering you?”

“Yes!” Danielle exclaimed.  “I’m mad at church!”

“Somebody NAILED Jesus to the cross—and he died!” she cried.  “Who would do such a thing?”
Her mother was quite stunned by her daughter’s question—and rightfully so.  Danielle’s has a very human response to the horror of the crucifixion event.  Who would do such a thing?

On one hand, it’s easy to point out the villains: there’s the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, and all the Jewish leaders who’ve opposed Jesus throughout his entire ministry.  We blame Pontius Pilate every week when we recite the creeds.  These are powerful men who saw Jesus as a direct threat to their power, privilege, and prestige. 

There’s the Roman soldiers and temple guards who earned a decent living doing the dirty work for the Romans and the Jewish leaders.  They make sport of their brutality, casting lots to divide up Jesus’ clothing.

Let’s not forget Judas Iscariot, the betrayer. 

The crowds who threw out palm branches for Jesus and gave him the hero’s welcome are now rioting Pilate for his death.  Some got caught up in the “mob mentality.”  Many knew Jesus was an innocent man—but did nothing.  Others saw his crucifixion as a victory of righteousness and justice. 

Every disciple who deserted Jesus, including Peter who denied him three times

These were all common folk, just like you and me.  All of us would love to believe that we would have stood beside Jesus to the very end, even dying with him.  But the truth is—that’s not what sinners do.  Sinners reject God. 

The sin inside of every human heart comes to its full expression on the cross.  We’d love to shift the blame to evil tyrants and corrupt political, social, economic, and religious systems.  But in the end, those systems are made up of people: people with hard hearts towards what was right by them; people with weak hearts too scared, to take a stand for what was right; people with cold hearts who just didn’t care. 

In our time, we see the cruelty of the cross visited upon other people—particularly those at the margins of society.  A third of the food produced in this country goes to waste, while one in five children goes hungry.  We see it in the widening gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.”  We see it in refugees who flee war and violence, but no one takes them in.  I could go on forever…

Even then, it’s not just power and privilege corrupts people into sin.  Fear and powerlessness breed brutal sin, too. 

But what is greater than the cruelty of sin is the love of God.  It’s not unreasonable to expect God to reign down fire and brimstone over all of Judea and maybe even the whole Roman Empire for what they did to Jesus.  You’d expect this to be the end of God’s relationship with humanity.  But no—instead, the temple curtain is torn in two.  God’s holiness breaks out of the holy of holies to heal and deliver a sinful world from sin and death.  That day, God began reclaiming the lives of evil tyrants and ordinary scoundrels.  God’s love will now be born in live in ordinary human beings. 

Repentance is what happens when the human love for sin is met with the love of God in Jesus Christ.  Power, privilege, and prestige lose their luster.  So do wealth and possessions…

Christ himself becomes our greatest treasure that we celebrate around word and Sacrament.  He becomes the treasure that comes alive in relationships where love is given and received; where human needs are met; where mercy and forgiveness triumph over status and competition.

As awful as things are in the world and as immense the challenges have become, the holiness of God lives right here in our midst.  We take up our crosses and lay our treasures down at the feet of Jesus for the neighbors who need them.  And even, God forbid, we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, resurrection will be God’s final answer.

The cruelty of humankind and all the forces of evil cannot hold back God’s will being done on earth as in heaven.

So we begin the final journeys with Jesus to his cross.  As terrible and humiliating it is to be brought face-to-face with the depth of our sin, God’s love is deeper—and wider.  The horror of the cross becomes the beauty of who our God is.  The crucified Jesus is God’s gracious and merciful response to all that is evil and broken in the world—so that all the world may join the centurion in saying and believing, “he is God’s Son.”


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Disciples in the Dirt: John 12:20-33 - Fifth Sunday of Lent

20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." 30Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (NRSV)
Image courtesy of amenic 181 / freedigitalphotos.net
Imagine getting a phone call from your 5-year-old son’s kindergarten teacher that he refuses to finger paint… because he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty…  And getting this same call numerous times from the elementary school art teacher for the very same reason…

My parents don’t have to imagine this.  For reasons I still don’t fully understand, I hate getting my hands dirty—or being dirty in general.  I was always offended by my school friends whose Tonka construction trucks were caked in mud—because I kept mine in showroom condition.  Most recently, I stunned our youth as they watched me eat pizza with a knife and fork. 

Whatever the deep-seeded reasons may be, I avoid dirt at all costs…  But then again, don’t we all?

Hand-sanitizer dispensers have become more ubiquitous than trash cans.  Bathing has become a daily ritual, whereas it was a monthly ritual a little more than a century ago.  Much of this is for the sake of our health and wellness—but I also think it’s because we all hate dirt.  And as they say—“cleanliness is next to godliness”—or is it?

Take Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel—“unless a grain of wheat falls into the [dirt] and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

You don’t have to be a clean-freak like me to be a little disturbed by these words.  Just the fact that Jesus says that you must hate your life in order to save it—to pour our lives into the dirt.  The way I see it, that’s not the way to get happy.  Happiness is living your best life now. 

In this day and age, to be happy is to be living a life that is the envy of others—to own the best things; to have the most fun; to be successful.  One of our strongest desires is to be people who have it all together, and who can please everyone all the time.  Consequently, this all puts a great deal of pressure on us, so that we don’t have the time or the energy for anything or anyone who would stand in our way. 

Who wants to get dirty with other people’s problems or shortcomings?  Who wants to get dirty by even being around people who are different from us—particularly those who are experiencing the kind of lives we despise most?  Who wants to be sick or dying?  Who wants to be poor?  Who wants to be neighbors to people from the wrong side of the tracks, who’ve been in trouble with the law?

Trouble is, we all fall into “the dirt” sooner or later—sometimes as the consequence of our sins, but sometimes not…  In an instant, our lives can be shattered by death or an illness; by the loss of a job or a relationship; or even simply by the fact that we’re imperfect persons and can’t please everyone.  In this life, you can have it all one minute—and lose it all in the next…

Losing it all can feel a lot like dying.  But the call to discipleship is dying, too—and what’s so difficult about it is that it is a voluntary dying.  It’s like pouring the finest wine out into the dirt.  This is exactly what happens on the cross—the blood of Jesus, the Son of God, spilled into the dirt.  A life so full of compassion, love, and truth is taken in the utmost cruelty of humanity.  But by the grace of God, his life and his death are not in vain.  The precious body and blood spilled into the dirt takes away the sin of the world, and draws all people to himself.  New life from God springs forth from the dirt.

This is a truth that changes everything.  For starters, it means that when we fall into the dirt, and the life that we’ve always known dies, God raises us up into a new life that bears the fruits of faith, hope, and love.  The waters of baptism wash of all the dirt of sin, to be born anew.  Fact is, we’re closer to Jesus in the dirt than we can ever be apart from it!

It is for this reason that we must listen as Jesus calls us into the dirt, to follow him with lives of self-giving and self-sacrificing.  This demands a vulnerability from us that we’re not inclined to take on, because there are risks involved.  Acts of faith do now always bear instant fruit.  Serving others never guarantees success—or even a thank-you.  And we’ll never have to look very hard for reasons to stay out of the dirt of discipleship: “It’s not a good time.”  “I’ve never done that before—therefore, I can’t.”  “Other things are more important.”  We’ll always be more inclined to pursue happiness on our own terms, rather than believing and trusting in the promise of Jesus.

But the truth Jesus wants to show you is that the Kingdom of God grows out of the dirt.  Life flourishes where there’s mercy and forgiveness.  Life flourishes as the faith of Jesus binds together in worship, in prayer, in serving, and mutual self-giving.

You are a seed—and if you’re not in a dirt, you’ll die because you’ll never live the life God intended.  But Everything God desires for you will be lost.  In the dirt, you’ll be born anew, along with the rest of the world.   Jesus is in the dirt.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Serpents and Grace: Numbers 21:4-9 - Fourth Sunday in Lent

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." 6Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (NRSV)
 

Image courtesy of darkkong / freedigitalimages.net
As a child, there were a few things we were never allowed to say…besides curse words. 

You never said “I’m starving”—because Mom or Dad would always answer, “No, you’re not!”

They knew that we really just wanted a candy bar—which we proved by our refusal to eat the fruits and vegetables they offered. 

In time, we came to understand what starvation really meant—as we began to notice the “Save the Children” commercials on TV…

But do we as adults truly get over this bad habit of childish whining?

Take the Israelites in the desert: they’re smack in the middle of their journey out of slavery in Egypt en route to the Promised Land.  Make no mistake—the journey was as grueling as it was perilous.  They faced the very real danger of death with each passing day.  But God was caring for them in very big ways: the Red Sea crossing; the manna and quail God provided for food; water gushing from rocks; and most recently—the destruction of a hostile enemy nation. 

Life wasn’t perfect; not by a long shot.  But God was taking care of his people.  Yet time and time again, the people grew restless; impatient; and mad.  Today we hear them complaining [to Moses]: “there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”  Think about how foolish a statement that is… 

No one can blame them for growing tired of the manna—it’s like us eating Wonder bread three times a day, for years on end.  They weren’t starving—but they didn’t see it that way.

But their moment of discontent quickly grew into a moment of profound despair.  In that instant, the memory of everything God had done in the past was gone—along with everything that God promised for their future. 

Make no mistake about it—it would have been incredibly difficult to eat such meager food, and be totally dependent on God to provide the food and water they needed to survive—and to lead them in the right direction.  But the panic takes over.  The people lose their heads.  The way they saw it, God was no longer on their side.

Can you imagine how quickly things could have spiraled out of control for the Israelites had God not intervened?  The entire nation would’ve quickly perished as they wrestled one another for whatever meager scraps of food and water could be found.  They would have argued and fought over who was to blame for the crisis and who had the best plan to resolve it—kind of like Congress. 

Strangely enough—the poisonous snakes seem to be the one saving grace here.  Yes, people die—but God provides the deliverance not only from the snakes, but from the crisis the people created. 

“Gaze upon the bronze snake on a pole—and you will live.”  A rather bizarre gift of healing—but nonetheless, God has provided again.

God speaks truth to us today—because we know the wilderness all too well.  We know it as illness and grief; we know it as times of need; we know it as the struggle to keep the faith when everything upon which we had built our lives is gone from us.

We know what it’s like to be surrounded by snakes—as people trespass against us and we trespass against them.  We know it as the crisis brought about by our own bad decisions.  We know helplessness.

All these things would definitely destroy us—but God provides.  Right in the center of it all, our crucified Jesus is lifted up.  The cross confronts us with three realities…  It is the sum of all our trespasses against God and neighbor.  It is the sum of all our greatest fears.  And—it is the sum of God’s compassionate mercy.  By the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven.  We are set free from the powers of evil and death.  We are loved unconditionally; not by our own merits, but because this is who our God is.

Right there, in the wilderness of suffering—God provides what we need to live.  One of the most awesome mysteries of God’s mercy is that God can use the things we fear and loathe the most to bring us closer to God. 

It is inevitable that we’ll find ourselves in the wilderness; stinging with the venom of the power of death.  It is then when we must stop, look, and listen: the cross reveals God’s unconditional love for you.  Jesus takes on all your sins onto himself.  Jesus suffers death and evil at their worst.  But God uses the cross to bring salvation to the world.  “Look at the cross, see the Son of God, and live.”

And take time to look around your life, giving thanks for all the good gifts your loving God gives—the God who was faithful yesterday will be faithful today and tomorrow too!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Wholly Holy: John 2:13-22 - Third Sunday of Lent

Courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography / freedigitalphotos.net
13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" 17His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." 18The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" 19Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." 20The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Last Sunday, God made history in New Kensington: the Vermont Baptist Church, which is a predominantly African-American congregation, began worshipping in the building belonging to First Lutheran Church (a predominantly white church).  First was one of five congregations willing to open their doors to them since they lost their building to a landslide. 

In spite of this devastating loss, amazing things are happening.  Their members were immediately surrounded by Jesus’ love from the moment they walked through the doors.  Vermont is in a better location to do ministry.  Plans are being made for both churches to share worship and Bible study.  Best of all, the racial divide that still segregates Christians is crumbling away.

I’m reminded of a group of former slaves who began worshipping at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia back in 1787.  Its white officials were not happy having so many blacks in their church.  They eventually constructed an upstairs balcony for them—and pulled them off their knees while they were prayed, in order to “put them in their proper place.” 

This is why the events in New Kensington are not only historic—but miraculous acts of God.  But it’s also proof that God’s reign is not established without great friction…

In today’s Gospel, we see a side of Jesus that’s extremely difficult to believe.  Jesus is rampaging through the temple, just before Passover, the Holiest festival of Judaism.  He’s overturning tables, scattering animals, and chasing out the money changers with a whip made of cords.  His reason—they made his Father’s house into a marketplace. 

We need to be clear on one thing: the sacrificial system, and the practice of changing secular moneys were all instituted at God’s command. 

This makes Jesus’ actions all the more troubling.  Jesus was attacking what was holy sacred—and not just in the eyes of the religious leaders—but even the most humble and devout Jewish worshippers.

But there’s a method to this madness…  The temple and the sacrificial systems were supposed to bring people closer to God.  Reality was, it all did the opposite.  Ultimately, Jesus would now be the one who would bring God to the people. 

Fast forward to today…  Is everything we call holy, really holy? 

We, too, build temples of our own—and not just out of wood, stone, and steel…  We have traditions; we have rituals; we have beliefs—that may or may not be truly holy…

Back in 1787, people thought they were doing God’s work by segregating their church.  They thought they were protecting what is holy.  This isn’t hard to do.  It is entirely possible to hold certain beliefs, practices, and traditions to be sacred when they’re not.  The beauty of this building; the beauty of our worship; the traditions and beliefs we’ve long held dear—they can’t be holy if they do not communicate God’s truth that everyone belong sin God’s family.

At the same time, do we consider our daily lives to be as sacred as the hours we spend here in church?  Do we consider our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces as mission fields?  Do we call it worship when we go to work or school, or even stand in line at the grocery store?  Do we see our neighbors, strangers, and people who don’t share our faith to still be fellow heirs to God’s promises?

Jesus’ actions speak loudly of God’s absolute zeal to destroy everything that would stand in the way of God’s beloved people from belonging to God’s family.  Be it buildings or institutions, rituals or beliefs—nothing is holy if it keeps God’s love in a box.

God’s kingdom comes—and God’s will is done—but not without friction and resistance…

The good news is that the walls are tumbling down!  It’s happening in New Kensington—and it’s certainly going to happen here.  Church growth and personal growth all happen when the power of God creates and the works within relationships.  And it’s a holy taste of the kingdom of God when the boundaries that once stood fall to pieces, and strangers become brothers and sisters in Christ.  Our schools, workplaces, grocery stores, and streets will become holy ground as the Holy Spirit makes them mission fields in which we give and receive God’s love.  Life takes on a whole new meaning as we begin to see all the ways that Jesus is active in our lives.

Today, we’re nearly halfway through our Lenten journey of repentance—and repentance is what happens as Jesus brings down everything that stands in the way of God’s will being done.  It is therefore a great time for us to be thinking, talking, and praying—for the Holy Spirit to give us Jesus’ zeal for everything that matters to God—and the courage to confront, challenge, and change every tradition, every practice, every belief, every wall that would otherwise suffocate God’s saving grace.  Jesus is so much bigger than our church, our denomination, our ways of doing things, and even our individual lives.  Jesus is determined for you to see that firsthand.


References



Ashe, Braden. "Vermont Baptist Church warmly welcomed in New Kensington." 2 March 2015. TribLIVE. <http://triblive.com/neighborhoods/yourallekiskivalley/yourallekiskivalleymore/7844802-74/church-vermont-baptist#axzz3TQYWiLIF>.

Farlee, Robert Buckey. Honoring Our Neighbor's Faith. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999.

 


 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

God's Reclaim: Mark 8:31-38 - Second Sunday of Lent


31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." (NRSV)

Photo courtesy of Simon Howden
Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
In the late sixties, a psychologist from Stanford University conducted an experiment to try and answer the question, “what causes a neighborhood to become a bad neighborhood?” 

What he does is he takes two identical cars—raises the hood, and removes the license plates.  One he abandons in a decidedly “rough” neighborhood in the Bronx, the other he abandons in a posh, upper-class neighborhood in California.

Within minutes, a father, mother, and child are spotted stripping saleable parts from the car in the Bronx.  It isn’t long before neighborhood youths and random passersby join the revelry of wanton destruction. 

The story was a little different out in California.  Nobody touched the vehicle for a week.  So the psychologist walks up and begins smashing the car with a sledgehammer.  Soon, random passersby joined the revelry of wanton destruction, just like in the Bronx.  Again, most of the vandals were found to be “clean-cut, seemingly-respectable whites.” 

What he learned from the experiment was that street crimes like vandalism happen when neighbors aren’t looking out for neighbors.  People living in close proximity become complete strangers, isolating themselves behind the walls of their homes.  They choose not to get involved when there’s trouble, either out of ignorance or fear of getting involved.  Or, to put it simply, communities break down when neighbors stop caring for neighbors. 

And why not?  The essence of our sinful nature is to only look out for number one.  Most of the time, we do this without even thinking.  The reasons why are quite obvious—we under pressure all the time to meet others’ expectations.  We’re under pressure to meet the expectations we set for ourselves; to satisfy all our needs and wants.  We don’t want to be bothered with other people’s problems when we have more than the fair share of our own.

The only time when it’s easy to care about someone else is when it’s in our own best interest. 

But we human beings are relational creatures—which is why human life cannot flourish if everyone looks out for number one.  This is how we lose our communities and neighborhoods.  And—this is how we lose our souls.

The only way to new life is the way of Christ, to take up our cross and follow him.  It is to pour ourselves out to our neighbor, for no other reason than because our neighbor needs us.

This is the heart of Jesus’ love for us—because he sees us and knows that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  He knows that we’re mortal.  He knows how broken this world is.  And he knows how desperately we need his grace and mercy. So he pours himself out.  The cross is the greatest outpouring of love the world has ever known—a love that has the power to make all things new.   We are to belong to one another in Christ as heirs to this awesome promise.

The obligation to love like Jesus is most surely upon us—but so too is the grace that saves us.  By grace, the burden of obligation becomes the path of beauty.  We learn to see our neighbors not for their shortcomings or their problems, but as fellow heirs to God’s promises.  By grace, we can look out for our neighbors knowing that God is looking out for us.  By grace, our fears and doubts give way to the power and the passion to make a difference.

It’s extremely rare that we’ll have to risk our lives to save a stranger from a burning house or an oncoming train (though first responders do this all the time).  Most of the time, God will call us to take up countless tiny little crosses every day that shine forth Jesus’ love.  Your eyes will be opened to your neighbor’s needs; your heart will burn with compassion; and the Spirit will energize you into an act of care.

It all begins as Jesus draws us out of the private little worlds we create for ourselves.  We go out and meet the neighbors—and really know them.  We go out and we see what’s going on—and we talk to God about it.  We talk to each other.  We let the Spirit move us, because the power of God lives within us to make a difference for the family whose roof is leaking, to the children who loiter in the streets with nowhere to go; even to the persons who are addicted to drugs and stealing to support their habit.  This doesn’t mean we have to fix everyone’s problems.  It’s more than enough to just show that we care.

If we withhold love, we don’t just lose ourselves.  We’ll lose the neighborhood.  Communities like ours can become “hell on earth” for those without the means or ability to leave.  But love is the power of God’s reclaim.  We’re reclaimed from death and the devil.  Our neighbors are reclaimed from fear, poverty, and isolation.  Our streets and communities are reclaimed from crime and chaos to become one big family where those who fall are lifted in love.

This is the way God heals a broken world.  The love of the cross is the power of salvation.  And there is no greater thrill in the Christian life than to be God’s hands, reclaiming what is already God’s.  The lives we lay down shall be the foundation of the kingdom that is soon to come.


References



Kelling, G. L., & Wilson, J. Q. (1982, March). Broken Windows. Retrieved from The Atlantic Monthly: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/1982/03/brokenwindows/

 
 

 


New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.